Senators’ Rookie Goalie Tandem Needs More Defensive Support

On Feb 14, 2023, Kevin Mandolese appeared in his first NHL game. It was a less-than-ideal scenario for the rookie goaltender, who was forced into duty after both of the Ottawa Senators’ goalies were injured. With the team set to face off against the New York Islanders, who were quickly becoming a team to watch in the Eastern Conference, the plan was to do his best, yet he performed of a lifetime. He secured the victory by stopping 46 of 48 shots and set an NHL record for the second-most saves in a debut win.

Kevin Mandolese Ottawa Senators
Kevin Mandolese, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

While the NHL saw a young goaltender making a big statement in his debut, Senators’ fans saw something more. Almost exactly eight years ago, Ottawa was in a very similar situation and was forced to call up rookie goaltender Andrew Hammond, who proceeded to win his first NHL start and go on a historic 20-1-2 run to push the struggling Senators into the playoffs. Could Mandolese follow in his footsteps and give his team the boost they need to make the postseason?

The easy answer is no; even with a Hammond-like run, unless every other team ahead of the Senators simply stops winning games, there’s virtually no way Ottawa can make the playoffs this season. But the truth of the matter is far more discouraging. Along with Mads Sogaard and recently departed Filip Gustavsson, the Senators have developed a lot of potential in the crease, but they are wasting it away by refusing to upgrade their defence. Unless that position gets the upgrade it needs, the Senators will continue to finish their seasons in April.

Andrew Hammond’s Surprising Playoff Run

Before looking at the Senators’ current issues, it may help to look back at Hammond’s incredible run. Ottawa was already without their starter Craig Anderson, which prompted the initial call-up, but when Robin Lehner suffered a scary collision with teammate Clarke MacArthur, forcing both players to leave the game early, Hammond was suddenly the only option. It seemed like a nail in the coffin for the Senators, who were already 10 points outside of the playoff race and looking forward to a high pick in the Connor McDavid draft.

Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After finishing the game for Lehner, Hammond suited up for his first NHL start on Feb 18, 2015, against the Montreal Canadiens, one of the hottest teams in the league, and turned away 42 of 44 shots to earn his first win. In his next start, he allowed just one goal in a 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers, and in the game after that, he shut out the Anaheim Ducks. After a month, the Senators’ rookie goalie had yet to lose in regulation, posting a 14-0-1 record, which not only made him a fan favourite and earned him the nickname, “The Hamburglar,” but also propelled Ottawa into the playoff picture after sitting 12 points out before his arrival.

When the playoffs finally arrived, the Senators sat in the first Eastern Conference wild-card spot with 99 points, and Hammond boasted a record of 20-1-2. It was truly an unbelievable run to earn a playoff berth, and although Ottawa would bow out in the first round against the Canadiens in six games, it didn’t matter. Hammond has cemented himself not only as an Ottawa legend but as one of the greatest rookie performances of the decade. He came in second for the Bill Masterton Memorial Sportsmanship Trophy, and received some low votes for the Vezina Trophy, as the league’s best goalie and the Hart Trophy, given to the NHL’s most valuable player.

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Hammond remained in Ottawa for two more seasons but never recaptured the magic he found as a rookie, posting a 0.906 SV% over 30 games and a 7-13-4 record over that span. In 2017-18, he was sent to the Colorado Avalanche in the deal that brought Matt Duchene to the Senators. He only played four games with his new team before leaving in free agency, where he signed with the Minnesota Wild. From there, he went on to play with the Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, and New Jersey Devils before a nagging injury forced him into retirement.

Mandolese and Sogaard Have Far Less Support

There are a lot of similarities between Mandolese and Hammond. Both were called up following the injury of the team’s starter, then forced into a starting role once the team’s backup went down due to a collision. Even the time of year is almost identical, with the day the pair made their debut separated by two days. However, some key differences set the two goalies apart.

The first is the support they have in the crease. When Hammond dressed for his first start, his backup was Chris Driedger, a third-round pick in 2012 who was in his rookie season with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Binghamton Senators. The 20-year-old had potential but struggled to adjust to his first professional campaign, spending a significant portion of the season in the ECHL. Mandolese, on the other hand, is the backup; since his debut, the Senators have gone with former second-round pick Sogaard, who had a similar experience last season in his debut, in which he made 27 saves to defeat the Detroit Red Wings, and started his AHL career with a 7-0-0 record in 2020-21. That gives this season’s rookie tandem more experience and talent than Hammond and his partner.

Mads Sogaard Ottawa Senators
Mads Sogaard, Ottawa Senators (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

However, the second, and far more telling, is the defensive support. There have been a few bright spots, like Erik Brannstrom’s team-leading 56.49% Corsi For percentage, but by and large, this team has failed at stopping other teams from getting chances. Ottawa’s top-four defencemen have given up, on average, 11.1 high-danger chances and 2.75 goals per game while having an expected goals-against of 2.67. The 2014-15 team, which had a top four of Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen, Marc Methot, and Cody Ceci, gave up 9.5 high-danger chances and 2.39 goals per game while having an expected goals-against of 2.21.

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The differences may not be large, but in a game, they are incredibly noticeable. Look at the game after Mandolese’s start, in which Sogaard was given the crease. Although he did well, stopping 28 shots and helping the Senators take a 3-1 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks heading into the dying minutes of the third period, several defensive lapses led to three quick goals, including the overtime game-winner. Most worrisome was the fact that it was Thomas Chabot, the Senators’ workhorse and most talented defender, who made the strange decision to slide on his stomach to break up a play, directly resulting in the goal.

It didn’t help that the Senators were without both Jake Sanderson and Nick Holden against the Blackhawks, but the issues aren’t coming from the young stars or depth defenders who average less than 14 minutes a game. Nor is it the team’s two goalies, who have been solid in the minors and come to the team as highly-touted prospects. Just look at Gustavsson, who was traded to the Minnesota Wild during the offseason for Cam Talbot; after a shaky start, he’s been one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL and holds a 0.928 save percentage.

The problem, unfortunately, comes from the top. The Senators’ top defencemen are underperforming, likely because half of Ottawa’s top four aren’t top-four defencemen. With Sanderson out, Nikita Zaitsev, who has been the team’s worst defender in giving up chances, has been promoted to the top unit. Travis Hamonic, who regularly appears on the second-pairing, has allowed the second-most goals on average behind Chabot. The Senators need a top-four defenceman, yet they continue to skirt around the issue and address other areas of weakness. The inability to address the problem is costing them crucial points.

Senators’ Playoff Dreams Are Still Unlikely

As of Feb. 20, the Senators sit just five points behind the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins, who currently hold the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference. On paper, that’s an incredibly manageable gap to close, but in reality, it’ll be almost impossible to accomplish. Not only are the Islanders surging, but so are the Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres, who both sit two points ahead of the Senators. Even if Sogaard and Mandolese can put up Hammond-like numbers, they’ll still likely end up fourth in the wild-card race.

But there is hope. If Sogaard and Mandolese can team up to put Ottawa within reaching distance of the playoffs, that gives the team a lot more confidence in the net next season. It’s unlikely Talbot returns next season, meaning Anton Forsberg will assume the starting job. However, if he falters, he knows that one of the team’s hot shots will be ready to take over, and competition in the crease almost always leads to better results. With the goalie situation sorted out, the Senators can focus fully on finding a defenceman, which will almost certainly push them into playoff action next season.

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